2nd March 1996 @ Shinjuku Liquid Room Captures Fishmans In Transition

The cover of Fishmans’ “new” live LP Wakainagaramo Rekishi Ari (“Young, But With History”) might mislead you: after all, the drummer is wearing his own merch, the bassist’s baseball cap is far from stylish, and the eccentrically dressed frontman appears disconnected from reality, completely lost in his own music. And unless you live in Japan, you won’t see Fishmans albums in record stores, nor find them on “greatest albums” lists. So, what’s all the hype about?

A few years ago, Fishmans’ 1996 dream pop masterwork Long Season suddenly and seemingly randomly appeared on 4chan’s /mu/ board. Proper band activity ceased in 1999, and their records were never physically released outside of Japan. Even there, Fishmans’ biggest “hits” barely cracked the Oricon charts, and until 2016 their albums didn’t make even a slight measurable commercial impression. Yet, their work quickly spread online; the Western music cognoscenti hasn’t caught the bug, but RateYourMusic users acclaim Long Season and Fishmans’ 1998 live farewell 98.12.28 Otokotachi no Wakare (“A Men’s Farewell”) in the ranks of Radiohead, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, and other critical fixtures. This rediscovery even led to this year’s Fishmans: The Movie documentary, currently only available in Japan (though the film team is preparing English subtitles).

Formed in the late 80s, Fishmans started as a conventional rocksteady and dub band, releasing on Media Remoras (Virgin Japan, now Pony Canyon) several decent but not particularly essential records. After their 1995 Polydor signing, they moved towards dream pop and neo-psychedelia, distinguished by frontman Shinji Sato’s soaring vocals, Kin-ichi Motegi’s unique mixture of sampled and traditionally recorded drums, Yuzuru Kashiwabara’s tight bass lines, ZAK (Kazuyuki Matsumura)’s spacious production, and additional member Yoko Honzi’s ethereal violin and keyboards. Kuuchuu Camp (“Aerial Camp,” or “Something In The Air”) commenced this shift, which on Long Season took full effect. A continuous 35-minute, five-movement composition, the beautifully melancholic Long Season shifts between joy and sadness, fantasy and reality. While still ignored by the general listening public, it’s a rightfully praised LP truly fitting of the overused, hyperbolic “magical” descriptor.

Unfortunately, Fishmans lasted only a couple more years; following 1997’s downtempo-leaning Uchu Nippon Setagaya (“Space Japan Setagaya”) and a December 1998 farewell tour to the departing Kashiwabara, Sato suddenly died of heart failure at 33. A perfect document of the group’s bittersweet final concert commonly regarded as the greatest ever live album, 98.12.28 Otokotachi no Wakare (“A Men’s Farewell”) features definitive recordings of catalog staples including “Night Cruising,” “Yurameki In The Air,” “In The Flight,” and the full “Long Season.” Motegi operates the respectful Fishmans+ tribute collective, though it isn’t (and doesn’t try to be) the same.

A month after Kuuchuu Camp’s release, Fishmans played at Shinjuku Liquid Room, a small Tokyo club. Universal released the professionally recorded and filmed concert on a 2005 DVD, and this year released 2CD and 3LP versions (an MP3 rip of the DVD previously circulated). With a live lineup of Shinji Sato, Yuzuru Kashiwabara, Kin-ichi Motegi, Honzi, and additional guitarist Michio “Darts” Sekiguchi, 2nd March 1996 @ Shinjuku Liquid Room captures a band transitioning from its dub, reggae, and rocksteady roots towards its more atmospheric future. Alongside less remarkable earlier material, during the two-hour set they played seven of Kuuchuu Camp’s eight songs.

Wakainagaramo Rekishi Ari opens with “Oh Slime,” the bands ever-changing and evolving live opener. Unfortunately, this version is merely a static, 11-minute run-of-the-mill reggae jam. Decent renditions of “Smilin’ Days, Summer Holiday” and “Thank You” follow, though the more natural take on 1994’s euphoric “Go Go Round This World!”, sampled vocals on “Kibun,” and a looser “Kansha (Odoroki)” are the included pre-Polydor songs’ highlights. Fishmans’ knack for regular albeit rather subtle song alterations made their live shows so compelling; of the Kuuchuu Camp selections, “Zuttomae” and “Baby Blue” are surprisingly faithful to the studio recordings. “Slow Days” has a nicely extended intro, the violin textures and Zeppelin-esque riff on “Sunny Blue” are more apparent, and “Night Cruising” is more emotionally powerful (though not to the 8 Gatsu no Genjō and 98.12.28 versions’ extent). A straightforward performance of “Atarashii Hito,” the Kuuchuu Camp closer rarely performed live, closes Wakainagaramo Rekishi Ari 1996.3.2 @ Shinjuku Liquid Room. Although it captures Fishmans at a pivotal moment, casual fans or new listeners don’t need this record. Despite the present energy—evidenced by Shinji Sato’s frequent, giddy yelps—most of these songs are simply inessential. Even among Fishmans’ Liquid Room performances, the Live 1997.12.12 bootleg is far superior.

The 3LP vinyl edition, sold only in Japan for an egregious ¥10,000 (about $90 USD, plus shipping to wherever you live), is a complete ripoff. The records, cut from ZAK’s digital remaster by Shigeru Burzawa at Nippon Columbia, have subpar imaging and sound a bit too compressed. The Toyokasei standard weight pressing is decent, but the typo-riddled widespine jacket and four-page lyrics and photos booklet greatly disappoint. This might’ve been acceptable for $70, but at $90 buyers deserve more. Considering the high price and unimpressive quality, I unfortunately can’t recommend this 3LP set over the far cheaper 2CD or CD-quality digital stream.

(Malachi Lui is an AnalogPlanet contributing editor, music obsessive, avid record collector, and art enthusiast. Follow him on Twitter: @MalachiLui and Instagram: @malachi__lui)

Michael Fremer's picture
Check out "Long Season"! It's one of my pre-going to sleep choices many evenings. Puts me in a serene mood...
Jonti's picture

…I’ve always found Uchu Nippon Setagaya to be the perfect first-thing-in-the-morning album. “Weather Report” in particular sets the right tone for another beautiful day.

I should add that most music-lovers in Japan who came of age in the 90s were very familiar with Fishmans. They’re not really quite as underground as this article seems to imply - certainly not when compared with contemporary bands such as the equally sublime Maher Shalal Hash Baz…

MalachiLui's picture

it's often said here in america that fishmans had some chart success in japan during the 90s but mostly a cult following there... so thanks for correcting that. i wasn't trying to imply that they were super underground; after all, they had major label deals even though they weren't selling hundreds of thousands of records. however, if it comes off that way, my apologies for any inaccuracies.

and yes, 'uchu nippon setagaya' is a fantastic album!

Tom L's picture

I like listening to Leo Kottke or other solo guitar before bedtime.
Or sometimes the Ramones "I Wanna Be Sedated".